The wind was hot and dry on my face, parching my lips in the 130-degree Saudi Arabian heat. For the third time I brushed my fingers reassuringly across the searing butt of Wilhelmina, my 9mm Luger. If I ever caught up with Hamid Raschid and the Dutchman, I wanted to make sure she hadn't been jolted out of the spring-loaded shoulder holster I wore under my bush jacket. The potholes on that two-lane strip of macadam that twisted across the desert were teeth-rattling.
I gripped the wheel harder and pressed the little Jeep accelerator to the floor. Reluctantly, the speedometer needle edged up toward seventy.
The shimmering desert heat waves distorted my vision, but I knew that somewhere down the highway ahead of me was the big SAMOCO truck I was chasing.
Hamid Raschid was a cunning Saudi, small, dark, thin-boned, a homosexual. He was also a sadistic killer. I remembered the mutilated body of one of the oil line guards we had found in the desert just three days before.
Sometimes you have to kill, granted But Hamid Raschid enjoyed it.
I squinted through my sunglasses and tried to will more speed from the Jeep. Coming up in the distance were a group of the towering, wind-swept sand dunes that dot the Saudi wasteland, interspersed with stark, hard-packed rocky ridges not unlike the mesas of Arizona.
If I didn't overtake the truck before we reached the dunes, there would be an ambush waiting for me somewhere along the thirty-seven-mile stretch of road between Dhahran and Ras Tanura. And Hamid Raschid knew he'd been flushed. Before the day was over, one of us would be dead.
The Dutchman. In his own way, the amiable, blond-bearded Dutchman — Harry deGroot — was as deadly as Raschid. The breakdown on the Dutchman had come through just the night before in a coded message from AXE, America's elite counterintelligence unit:
DeGroot, Harry, 57. Dutch collaborator. Deputy Director, Enhizen, 1940-44. East Germany, saboteur, 1945-47. Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, espionage, 1948-60. Romania, saboteur, 1961-66. USSR, espionage instructor, 1967-72. Education: University of Gottingen, geology. Family: None. Rating: K-1.
K-1 was the key. In AXE's cryptic style, it meant "ruthless and professional." K-l was equivalent to my own Killmaster rating. Harry deGroot was a well-trained assassin.
The geology background, of course, explained why he had been posted in the Mideast.
Raschid, too, was an oil expert. His studies fifteen years before at the American University in Beirut had dealt primarily with petroleum exploration. It is an ever-popular subject in that part of the world.
It was also what had brought me to Saudi Arabia on a Priority One urgent assignment from AXE. It had started innocuously enough on April 17, 1973, when, according to
Explosive charges had been set off under the pipeline four miles from the Zahrani terminal, but little damage had been done. Initially, that bungled attempt at sabotage was written off as just another harassment by Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Front.
But that turned out to be only the first of a long series of incidents. They weren't aimed at disrupting America's flow of oil. The October, 1973, War and the ensuing boycott by the Arab states had already done that. The goal was to cut off Western Europe's flow of oil, and the United States couldn't afford that. We needed a strong, economically expanding Western Europe to offset the power of the Soviet bloc, and the oil that kept the NATO nations alive came from Saudi Arabia. So even though we weren't getting the oil ourselves, the American oil companies in the Arab countries were committed to keeping our Western Allies supplied.
When terrorists leveled the oil depot at Sidi Behr, my irascible boss at AXE, David Hawk, called me in.
My job, Hawk told me, was to get the ringleaders, cut the plant off at the roots. It had been a long trail, leading through London, Moscow, Beirut, Teheran and Riyadh, but now I had them — racing ahead of me down the highway toward Ras Tanura.
The truck was getting closer now, but so were two towering sand dunes and a rocky ridge leading off to the right. I leaned forward to keep my desert-parched face behind the small windshield of the Jeep. I could see beyond the lurching blue shape of the big stake track to the sharp curve in the highway, where it disappeared between the dunes.
I wasn't going to make it.
The truck hurtled into the curve at high speed and disappeared between the dunes. I cut the Jeep's ignition so that only the sound of the truck's laboring engine could be heard in the silent heat of the desert.
Almost immediately that sound, too, was cut off, and I slammed on the brakes, skidding half off the road before I came to a stop. Raschid and the Dutchman had done just as I had suspected they would. The truck was stopped now, probably broadside to the road. Raschid and the Dutchman would be racing to the shelter of the rocks on either side of the road, hoping I would come slamming into the blockading truck.
I wasn't about to. Hidden by the bend in the road, just as they were, I sat for a moment in the Jeep, considering my next course of action. The sun hung brightly in the cloudless sky, a relentless ball of fire baking the shifting desert sands. Sitting still now, I could feel the sweat running down my chest.
My mind was made up. I swung my legs out of the Jeep and moved quickly to the foot of the towering sand dune. In my left hand I carried the jerry can of extra gasoline that was standard equipment on every SAMOCO vehicle in the desert. In my right hand was the canteen that was usually hooked in its bracket under the dashboard.
By now, Raschid and the Dutchman, anticipating a big crash — or, at least, my wildly careening effort to avoid one — would have realized that I was on to them. Now they would have two choices: either wait for me, or come after me.
I calculated they would wait: The truck provided a natural barricade and the road, with dunes on either side, served as a deadly funnel to feed me right into the muzzles of the two AK-47 rifles which had been strapped under the seat of the truck cab. To circle the dune on the left would take an hour, maybe more. The dune on the right, banked up against a long finger of rock, would be impossible to drive around. It extended for miles.
There was only one other way to go — up and over the top. But I wasn't sure I could make it. The sand dune looming above me stood more than seven hundred feet high, rising precipitously with sides carved out steeply by
I needed a cigarette, but my mouth was as dry as parchment already. Crouching at the foot of the dune, I drank hungrily of the brackish water in my canteen, letting it sluice down my throat. I poured the remainder over my head. It ran down my face and neck, soaking the collar of my bushjacket, and for one grand moment I felt the relief from the insufferable heat.
Then, quickly unscrewing the top from the jerry can, I filled my canteen with gas. When I put the top back on the canteen I was ready to go. I hooked it onto my belt and started up.
It was incredible. Two steps up, one back. Three up, two back, sand sliding out from under my feet, throwing me face down against the burning slope, the sand so hot it blistered my skin. My hands clawed at the steep pitch, then jerked away from the scorching sand. This wouldn't work — I couldn't climb the dune going straight up. The running sands wouldn't support my footholds. To move at all, I would have to stretch, spread-eagled on the slope in order to gain maximum adhesion; but to do so meant burying my face in the sand, and the sand was too hot even to touch.
I twisted around to lie on my back. I could feel the nape of my neck beginning to blister. The entire dune seemed to be pouring under my bush jacket and down my pants, caking on my sweating body. But on my back, at least, my face was out of the sand.
Lying backward on that mountain of sand, I began to inch my way uphill slowly, using my arms in wide sweeping motions and my legs in froglike kicks. It was as if I were swimming on my back.
The bare power of the sun beat at me implacably. Between the sun pouring out of that, trackless sky and the reflected heat of the sand, the temperature as I struggled up the hill must have been around 170 degrees. According to the Landsman Ratio, desert sand reflects roughly one-third of the heat of the surrounding air.
It took me a full twenty minutes before I reached the crest, panting, dehydrated, thirsty, and covered with sand. Cautiously, I peered over the top. If either the Dutchman or Hamid Raschid happened to be looking in my direction, they would spot me in an instant, but it would be a difficult shot for them, shooting upward.
It was just as I had figured. There was the truck, angled crossways across the road, both doors open. Hamid Raschid, a small figure in his white